—toward Jacob, who took that river’s first new breath
and for Will and for Paco and for Jenny and for Jeff…
I started asking rivers to feed me as a child—literally, with flesh from fish, then figuratively, with flashes of comfort. On the banks of Pacific Northwest tributaries, I learned to anchor my attention in the ceaselessness of a current pushing towards salt. There, while throwing a line to schools of salmon or steelhead, the realities of poverty and addiction back home felt more elsewhere, and it was easier to believe both good food for family and good food for thought waited in my next cast. Like that, I spent a lot of time fixated on running water.
But it only takes two trips to the same stretch of stream (say, just before and then just after an overdue rain) to see how quickly a river can go from tender to terrifying, from seeming to drift gently at your feet with all that it could offer to holding what you believe you need most beyond your riskiest reach. And a river almost always takes more time to return from raging.
In preparation for a craft panel called “Writing the Wounded World: Poets Working from and against Eco-Grief,” I choose to return to an Arkansas stream that I’ve been avoiding. One transplanted suffering or another I am carrying around has changed the stream’s banks from a space of meditative reconnection and release into an unpleasant mirror of my own inner fracturing—of feeling, as Li-Young Lee once put in a poem, “dispersed, though in one body,/ claimed by rabble cares and the need to sleep.”
Like many in struggle will do from time to time, rather than accepting the difficulty of my surroundings—in this case, a Southern stream’s warmwater startle of poisonous snakes and primitive gar—I have been staying away. I have been forgetting how the landscapes that ground me often do so without my fully trusting why. Sometimes, all you have to do is stumble or drag your feet toward a familiar place of relief. Sometimes, all you have to do is return…
I have been what I would call healed by several streams. But each healing that I’ve experienced from Vermont has turned the power of running water into a greater mystery for me. One Vermont river-healing didn’t even feel like a healing when it was happening.
I was first in Vermont during a four-week September residency—to rise and write and revise while surrounded by other inspiring writers and visual artists. What’s more, I would eat every meal and write or change every word and sleep every night with a river right outside my window.
Between midday bouts of creating, a handful of us had started strolling to a nearby swimming hole to escape the swelter of late summer. Then someone learned of a chilly spring-fed stream with plunge pools just beyond our normal walking range. So, one day, we crammed into the few cars available, and I spent that particular afternoon with artists showing me how to receive a glorious massage from the right-sized riffle or miniature waterfall. If you can find a roughly body-height drop in a river with rocks to safely wedge yourself steady, you can feel that river’s travel written along your entire body. If the day is hot enough or the water cool enough, your breath will also gain a new story. The story I received that day was about the grace of a togetherness you don’t see coming. After decades of wading and fishing and meditating through streams, there I was, almost by accident, with beautiful not-quite strangers teaching me a whole other way to let a river carry me.
But then the softness of Vermont was punctured by another afternoon, one I spent alone with a different river toward the end of the residency. That day began with a long and difficult route I’d planned for fishing. That day, the pleasant pulls on my attention and warm admissions of connection were slowly then suddenly replaced by nature’s other necessary insight: unbounded indifference.
For years I’d told myself that my time with streams was deepened by a distinction from my writing practice, that I never wrote while on a river, soothed by the ways running water seemed to diminish my traction on the past, weaving my focus into the falling present instead. When I was planning my route to this other Vermont river—which I purposefully made long and difficult to gain more space to fish back from—I imagined it as a gift of sorts, for all the writing I’d been doing back in my studio, day after day, only swimming with new friends but resisting the urge to grab my flyrod to keep the words coming.
Then I trudged the multiple miles down what ended up being a harrowing highway and an oddly named backroad that I swore I’d heard before. Along the way I tracked through ominous clouds of insects, pieces of putrefying roadkill, and other strange signs that needled a sensitivity dredged up by the weeks of unobstructed writing. The brutal heaviness of the sun also seemed determined to wring my body more defenseless with every step.
And once I arrived at the river, what waited for me there was the most intimate conversation I’ve ever had with loneliness, as the meanings I’d built around my own wounded history were stripped away by the rawness of nature’s unreflecting face.
I scribbled notes the entire time—in part to interrupt the unwanted immediacy, in part to reach for understanding all that loneliness was trying to tell me. As the river did nothing but continue, perhaps the hardest thing I heard loneliness saying that day was Trust me.
When I finally returned, the artists I’d grown closest to could read a kind of horror on my face—that I was struggling to get my breath back. They sat with me. They let me stay silent. They let me weep. Their hands confirmed from time to time that my bewildered body was indeed back with them. Amen.
Two summers later, when a writers’ conference brought me back to Vermont, I hadn’t been in or near very much running water since, and I was growing afraid that I’d somehow lost my way to the single healthiest environment of my life.
I’m weaving my truck through the Ozarks. This hilly range has soft inclines that can too easily obscure their ancient age from a Washington-born vantage like mine. My literacy of the horizon was shaped by staggering peaks of The Cascades and The Olympians, by looming volcanoes that could demand without warning the entire region’s full attention with smoky reminders of their potential for catastrophe.
As I drive, I catch an episode of Hidden Brain on the radio. The segment I’m hearing is about “wild awe,” and Shankar Vedantam’s guest, Dacher Keltner, is saying that wild awe occurs when we encounter a mystery too vast to perceive with our current knowledge of nature. Such awe requires our accommodation, which can be harrowing—that feeling of rearranging your structures of understanding to make sense of the awesomeness before you.
I pull up to the banks of the Arkansas stream, and something clenched inside me gives…
I spent the opening August days of the Vermont conference letting it slip to other writers that I was maybe hoping and also more than a little fearful to make my way to a river during our stay there—and could I maybe have some help to go for a brief swim, maybe look for a miniature waterfall if we had the chance, just to know that I could tolerate a river’s full holding again, to know running water returning my breath.
As it turned out, there was already a well-established tradition of conference-goers visiting a river just a short drive away. And so, I piled in with the handful of writers who had decided to spend their mid-conference break swimming to reset the intensity of the writing and the heat.
Much of the day that unfolded with those writers still feels buffered by a gauzy disbelief at the numinous strands of vulnerability and curiosity and play that kept us both together and apart from moment to moment. Even the drive there was setting some kind of wonder in motion.
With limited space, a few of us had squeezed side-by-side in the trunk of a writer’s hatchback. Because we sat facing backwards, looking through the vehicle’s large rear-window, our view was of the rural road pulling its yellow hashes away from us. A wave not unlike motion sickness started to challenge our trust in staying very long with that perspective.
Something about the challenge also maybe seemed restorative—or somebody wanted to call it that, if only to help us pass the drive. Societal messaging would have us believe that we live strapped forward to time, responsible for predicting and capitalizing on all that’s headed our way (and feeling ashamed when we don’t or cannot). But that day’s backwards travel was more aligned with how we really move through life—time pulling experience from us, moments and people added to the stream of our constantly becoming the past.
Then someone confessed how much they were struggling to actually see the occasional joggers and bikers we kept passing. Faces and forms sprung from a first clarity that felt immediately washed away as each figure entered the obscurity of their growing distance from us. Someone called the feeling sad, and then someone else or that same someone, wanting a different name for sadness, called it forgetting.
When the car finally stopped at the river and our difficult new sense of movement did not relieve, we tried hugging each other to break the spell.
“Reading the water” is what anglers call the practice of divining a river’s underwater drama by interpreting what can be seen at its surface: the speed of a floating leaf, color changes created by shadow or depth, boils in the stream’s current as water works around a submerged log, etc. This visual information, when synced with feedback from countless hours of angling’s trials and errors, becomes a foil to imagining invisible fish lying in hiding or tracking something to eat.
It’s what I’m doing now at the Arkansas stream, even though I already know I will push through the first several hundred yards of river, wading for the riffles and pools that past experience has taught me will contain more promising fish. The water’s allure on my attention is immediate, though, and keeps me from rushing by for the moment.
I’ve read so much water in my life it feels like an instinct I’ve always had. Turning that instinct off seems as likely as disregarding what a tree’s leaves can say about the seasons at a glance. Even while standing before an urban spillway or agricultural ditch, pieces of water I know have nothing with scales swimming below, I will catch myself looking where impossible fish could hold in another world…
After the cars had all unloaded at the Vermont river, I held somewhere between those writers who took out books in the inviting shade and those who stripped down to swimwear before entering the water. It took me a few beats and then a short leap from an overhang and a brief swim upstream to find my initial waves of relief. In a small bend where the river picked up just enough current to seem heavy, I spent several minutes with a fellow writer (whom I’d learned earlier was also an angler and so could empathize with the odd sensation of splashing straight into a riffle—something you’d never do while stalking fish), showing them a shy version of the massage technique that the residency artists had taught me. We took turns finding our footing, holding hands as necessary, to feel the river kneading at the tension in our shoulders.
Then I heard whoops and hollers, and the garbled word “waterfall” came from further upstream, where some other writers were waving their arms to get our attention. I made my way along the slick river-stones to learn they had discovered a crop of large rocks that broke the current into multiple braids. One braid of stream plunged more dramatically than the rest, creating a perfect scoop in the flow for someone to rest against.
My skin and hair had dried some, which intensified the gasp and grin of easing my body back into the cool hands of the stream. And I lingered there until I was convinced, I had rejoined the one long heave of running water. Then I watched as the other writers took turns receiving their own massages, expressions lit with feeling yourself rippled by a river’s defiance of start or finish.
Then one writer filled their lungs and went face first, playfully ducking their back below the river’s rush. Just as the clock in my head sounded with real worry, they broke the surface and exclaimed, “You can breathe under here!” We were writers. We could hear their voice caught in the familiar thrill of translating individual joy into group resonance. Yes, weren’t we all receiving a kind of breath? But no, they insisted, they’d found a little space behind the river, between water and rock, where you could just fit the front of your face and breathe.
And so, we took new turns, daring ourselves to find the underwater way to draw breath, the trust of which seemed to require opening the eyes against a roar that shouted otherwise to your senses. What kind of air was this that we were taking into our lungs now?
Then another writer perched on an upstream boulder to take in the high view of a face rising with astonishment. But what they saw beneath was the river fanning the torso of each water-breather into one more miracle we maybe didn’t want the language for, so nobody really tried beyond a deep sighing.
Then another writer found this nearly invisible dip in the limestone of the nearby shallows, a slight bowl that seemed a minor mirror to our almost waterfall. And when they plopped down into it to show those of us who couldn’t yet see, the grandeur of their motion added our laughter to the day.
As the afternoon aged, we went on like that, returning to the wonder-cave or playing sillier to soften the ending we had to face once the awe had begun. Some of us could only take a single new breath. Some of us went under over and over. Nobody rose with the same expression. We each took as many tries as needed and then waited until our spell waned enough to leave it.
One by one but also all together, we started moving downstream toward the vehicles. Perhaps as a kind of mercy for the longing already growing within us, someone mentioned what we had to accept about the river: we would never find that cave again. Even if we could return a hundred times, seasonal floods would shift a flow-altering stone or water levels would drop too low to ever recreate the breath we were departing. And maybe that was the blessing. We each had places to go and be present. A desire to be impossibly back would not serve us, nor would convincing others they should have been somewhere else they could not. But we carried in our lungs a shimmery faith in the next strange breath we might drop inside of, if only we dared or lingered or played enough to witness something rewriting the distrust in our bodies.
We floated the last stretch of river with our bellies up, facing backwards, mostly letting a stream’s meander carry us without much effort, feet dimpling the scenery drifting by. I started a quiet prayer for what we may have planted in that cave, and for the gentleness of our leaving—that it might save us from hurting to clutch the clarity that must pass away.
While some rivers will show you, either readily or in time, a being that lies underneath, all rivers keep parts of themselves flexing beyond our sight. I return to running water to know what a life spent looking again will sometimes reveal, but also to accept what drifts in the margins of an always incomplete wonder. Today that wonder includes but is not limited or even mostly defined by my fear of—what—the language I’ve been missing for belonging?
Before I start fishing my Arkansas stream to fully break the dry spell, I turn around to make a mental note of the path I’ll need at the end of this day. But the way is bordered by thick bushes and riparian trees that obscure the truck parked somewhere I can’t see. Bless the river once more for making it harder for me to stare off towards where it is I think I am heading, nudging my attention back inside the banks of where I am.
Edited by Patrycja Humienik.
The featured image is a photograph by Patrycja Humienik.